Accidental Registrar: A Look Back

Even before my retirement a little over a year ago, I had been thinking of writing something about my fifteen years in the registrar’s office at Oregon State University. Many things came to mind as I neared my last day, but perhaps the most persistent thought was how accidental it had been that I ever became a registrar in the first place.

Prior to applying for the position of Special Programs Manager, I had limited interaction with registrar offices and had given approximately zero thought to ever working in one. I had a rudimentary idea of what registrars did, but I had no idea what one did to prepare to work in a registrar’s office. Had I known that the answer to that question is so far unanswered, I would have been a little more assured.

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, roughly equivalent to the Iron Age in registrar geologic terms, I had registered as an undergraduate via the spectacle known as arena registration. To my bewildered undergraduate psyche, the process had the same easy-to-follow steps that exist in photosynthesis, calculus, international diplomacy, and literary criticism. Only with punch cards. Incredibly, though, it worked.

As a graduate student a decade later, I registered via telephone, roughly the Bronze Age in registrar office geologic terms; and as an adjunct instructor at university and community college, I discovered the registrar’s office was one of my best professional friends. It was vital in a mysterious and wonderful way, providing me with class lists at the beginning of the semester, and notifications of adds, drops, and withdrawals throughout the term. At the end of every semester, I supplied grades, first via Scantron sheets (another Iron Age feature), and then through the miracle of online grading (a true miracle if there ever was one). I could go to the registrar’s office for any question remotely connected to my class, from the start date of the term to the location of the parking lot nearest my classroom.

With such a minimal understanding and interaction with the form and function of a registrar’s office, the question why I applied to work in one seems reasonable. I have often asked myself that question, hoping that continued thought would produce an epiphany, and I could then assure myself that I knew what I was doing and what to expect when I applied at OSU. I am confident that I am closing in on the answer and will shortly be satisfied with the explanation. That, however, is still a work in progress. Though I am not yet certain of the reason(s) that prompted me to become a registrar, I can say without hesitation or qualification that I am glad I did.

Those who worked with me over the fifteen years at OSU may be surprised to hear that I claim to be happy with my decision. But my frustrations, complaints, protests, and temporary unhappiness from time-to-time pale in comparison to the great relationships I had with fabulous colleagues, the support and encouragement I received from the three university registrars I worked for, and the thousands of kindnesses from students, faculty and staff, and the unstinting wonders that I witnessed daily from co-workers in the office.  Each day was an adventure, or at the very least a potential adventure.

I knew from the first that I had a lot to learn, and often was in uncharted waters, particularly when I talked with students and listened to plights that were at odds with my own dull, normal undergraduate experience. In my first encounter trying to understand an account of a particular difficulty (the details of which are lost to me now), I can remember only looking blankly at the student and asking, with what I hoped was a sympathetic tone, “Why did you do that?” Somehow, we arrived at a plan that addressed the difficulty, with some pain to everyone involved, probably. Other meetings with students dealt with a wide range of traumas: some were relatively benign issues, such as missed drop deadlines; others were issues that involved difficult decisions by the students to withdraw from the term, or withdraw from a course, possibly impacting degree progress. In time, I became more comfortable with the meetings, and more assured of how to deal with the issues. At one point, I discovered that for all but the most traumatic instances, and in some cases even for those, I had progressed from asking “Why did you do that?” to stating, usually with confidence, “I think I have a form for that.”

I was ecstatic with some of those adventures, wary and unsure of others, and frustrated and angry at a small number. Unfortunately, the small number of frustrations loomed large in the moment; fortunately, they have diminished over time, leaving me with an appreciation for the good fortune and opportunity I had over those years.

Looking back at a career that I didn’t consciously prepare for, or even know existed until I was in it, is a fascinating remembrance, and after retirement, I hope somewhat explainable. Working with faculty members on scheduling, room assignments, and final exam scheduling helped me understand the day-to day challenges that faculty and departments faced, and helped them understand that scheduling for the entire university is a master puzzle that involves consideration of every college and department across the university. Helping students understand the academic regulations and the purpose behind them, and in particular notions such as academic residency, repeat rules, truncated (rather than rounded) GPA, degree audits, FERPA, academic suspension and why it was never because of one class or one teacher, helped me to understand those regulations and our processes, and helped students, I think, to take a careful view of their role in their education. Participating in and contributing to OSU commencement – a complex, interconnected, and dynamic process that is a time of joy, celebration, and sometimes frustration – reinforced why it was great to work in the registrar’s office. Finally, I hope that my work and conversations with students, faculty, and parents helped them understand that I had no interest, ever or in any way, of ruining their lives.

Those remembrances, challenges, frustrations, and successes are what I had in mind when I proposed to write about my experiences and observations, titled The Accidental Registrar, to the editors of the PACRAO Review.

An explanation of how I found myself in the OSU Registrar’s Office, and how I faced  the issues and challenges of the jobs I held, how I was helped, and why I didn’t run away, is what I am interested in relating. If it makes sense to readers, then I am probably confused and have remembered events selectively; if it seems to be a chronicle of how miraculous it is that my career as a registrar lasted as long as it did, then I have told the true story.


Tom Watts worked in the Office of the Registrar at Oregon State University from 2001 to 2016. He began as Special Programs Manager, and worked also as Assistant and Associate Registrar, before his retirement in 2016. He lives in Seattle, where he cheers for his wife’s bagpiping endeavors, roots for the Mariners, and takes instructions cheerfully from his granddaughters.

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